Virginia's female legislators rally around equality issues

For the past several years in Virginia, work for women's rights has centered almost solely on the Equal Rights Amendment. Then, one year ago, something changed. Mary Marshall, a 14-year veteran of the Virginia House of Delegates, gives the history:

"We'd sit on these committee hearings, listening to vital bills on credit, inheritance, or battered spouses," she says, "and the groups that should have been lobbying on those issues were standing outside with their 'ERA: Yes!' or 'ERA: No!' banners. It was time to bring them inside."

The delicate task of bringing the rivals together fell to a Richmond, Va., lawyer -- Sylvia Clyta -- who got "everybody to a dinner party last year and said, 'We all say we're for equality, let's do something about it,'" Delegate Marshall reports.

The task of organizing this group fell to Pat Jensen, president of the Virginia League of Women Voters, who was still stinging from a male legislator's comment about her lobbying efforts. "He said, 'If only you women would get together and decide what you want.' Well, now we have."

The Women's Roundtable, as they named it, is carefully defined not as a coalition or a lobbying group, but as a collection of people and organizations interested in women's issues. "We don't discuss abortion or the ERA, and we don't say, 'Now let's go out and lobby,'" says Ms. Jensen. "But we do meet weekly during the legislative session and discuss the progress of bills."

The "we" includes all female legislators and their aides as well as a diverse group of lobbyists from 13 very different organizations ranging from the American Association of University Women to the Metropolitan Women's Bar Association, from United Methodist Women to the Richmond Diocese Council of Catholic Women, from the General Federation of Women's Clubs to the Committee on Sexual Assault Reform (COSAR).

"At first," says one pro-ERA attendant, "it was hard to sit across the table from those we knew had marched against us, but we soon found that we could agree on many specific issues. In fact, some of those groups had much stronger pro-equality positions than we did."

Discussion was open, frank, and included references to comments heard in committee hearings and at parties. "On the sexual assault bill," Pat Jensen recalls, "COSAR told us to be quiet because the House committee was grappling with amendments. So we left them alone."

As their work progressed, the group discovered the advantage of visibility. "We got a lot of good local coverage," she says, "and everytime we were quoted in the paper, the legislators were flooded with calls on these bills. I think we made a visible difference."

But other differences are harder to measure after the group's infant year. A few laws passed with seeming ease. And two major bills -- one introducing the idea of marriage as a partnership in divorce cases, the other giving all property to the surviving spouse in the case of death -- "actually got out of committee and passed the House," Mrs. Jensen says cheerfully.

And then they died in the Senate.

"Sure, it's discouraging," she says, "but we learned something from this. Until these 'good ole boys' in the legislature start feeling the pressure from their female constituents, they're just not going to change their basic ways of thinking."

Now the Women's Roundtable, under the leadership of the women's rights chairwoman of the League of Women Voters, is spearheading an educational effort directed at women in "areas not usually reached by women's groups," Ms. Jensen says. At seminars to be held in six cities this year, the roundtable will review Virginia law and its effects on women.

"We've found that we don't have to preach, or even take a stand on these issues -- they speak for themselves," she reports. "And there's always some woman in the audience who will say, 'That sounds exactly like what happened to me.'"

Then, when the legislature meets again next year, the Women's Roundtable will return to its weekly meetings. But any negotiations to turn this into a "women legislators caucus" or a "women's right coalition" are seen as "too delicate at this point," says Ms. Jensen.

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